Life in the death camp
Mundi: Five Years in Auschwitz by
Wieslaw Kielar, 312 pp, Allen Lane, 1981
WHEN BERNARD WASSERSTEIN’S Britain and the Jews of Europe was published in 1979 it was reviewed in the New York Review of Books by Elie Kedourie, professor of International Politics at the London School of Economics. Kedourie concluded his review with the following words:
It must, of course, never be forgotten that the Nazis were the root cause of the evil. Their slime spread in ever widening ripples and tainted not only those whom they occupied or dominated but also some of their opponents.
These words illustrate what is perhaps the central psychological problem in all attempts to come to grips with the history of National Socialism in Germany. For in them we do not only encounter a questionable analysis of history; we also encounter the very rhetoric of contagion which has been part of the substance of anti-semitic propaganda throughout history, and which figures with particular prominence in National Socialist propaganda. Far from being exceptional, such rhetoric occurs elsewhere in the literature which has been produced on Hitler and anti-semitism. Again and again metaphors of disease, poison and pollution are used to characterise the very movement which compulsively applied similar metaphors to the Jews.
Behind such thoughtless and automatic use of metaphor, and behind the demonic caricature we have developed of the ‘Nazi’, there lies an attempt to defend a limited and inadequate concept of human nature. Obscurely we recognise that we are all implicated in the violence of the Third Reich; it is the most extreme example of the destruction which human nature can wreak. But by the words we use to describe this violence we unconsciously seek to attribute it to forces which reside outside humanity. Anti-semitism is thus referred to as if it were an invasive disease which infect nations or individuals while the violence which it lead to is describes as ‘inhuman’, ‘demonic’, ‘brutal’ or ‘bestial’.
In the face of that very event which some have described as an eruption of medieval barbarity into the twentieth century, we tend to react by seeking refuge in terms which themselves belong to the world-view of the middle ages. The result is a consolatory mythology in which Hitler and National Socialism, having been identified with the forces of ‘anti-culture’, come to be seen as the repository of all evil: a modern anti-Christ onto whom we may indiscriminately project our own violence and our own unconscious corruption. By a bitter irony the very process of projection which is central to the phenomenon of anti-semitism is secretly indulged by those who analyse that phenomenon.
The fact that we should recoil so persistently from history into myth is not difficult to understand when we consider the sheer scale of the destruction enacted by the National Socialist regime. It is a scale which inevitably arouses unconscious denial and the invocation of alien, and perhaps even supernatural forces. Nowhere is this more true than in the case of Auschwitz.
Auschwitz, together with other National Socialist extermination camps, was assigned one central function by Hitler. That function was to cleanse not just Germany but the whole of Europe of what was regarded as the most dangerous of all pollutions: the Jewish people. The camps ultimately failed to perform this function and for the most impassioned National Socialists this continued to be a matter of regret long afterwards. ‘To be frank with you,’ Adolf Eichmann told a sympathetic journalist in 1957, ‘had we killed all of them, the 10.3 million, I would be happy and say, “all right we managed to destroy an enemy.”’
Wieslaw Kielar and Kitty Hart were two of those who walked out of Auschwitz alive. In their books they return to confront their experience and in different ways face up to the task of describing the inconceivable and of making what is sometimes beyond belief seem real. To read the two books together is to be made aware of the immense difficulty of this task. Wieslaw Kielar’s solution is to begin in medias res and to present his reader with a stark unmediated narrative shorn of all context . We learn only incidentally that Kielar is not Jewish and that he was sent to Auschwitz for his involvement with the Polish resistance. We are given no clue as to the course of his life after the war ended. Instead the narrative directs an unblinking, undeviating gaze at the day-to-day realities of one man’s life in a death camp.
Gradually we are introduced to the hierearchy of terror: the ruthless bullying by SS officers and the equally sadistic tyranny of those prisoners who became functionaries within the system and were rewarded according to the number of deaths they could produce by a regime of work, starvation rations and arbitrary punishment. We become familiar with a routine of roll-calls and endless ‘selections’ through which prisoners who had survived might be consigned to death in the gas chambers. There is a pervading stench of excrement and above all death: the smell of the rotting bodies of those who had died of starvation, the overpowering sickly smell of burning corpses.
Through this landscape of terror Kielar charts his own progress. As a narrator he is possessed at times of a stony camera-eyed objectivity , recording events not with the anger or incredulity of hind-sight but without explanation, protest or bewilderment – as though any intrusion on the part of the writer might destroy the integrity of the facts which are presented. The story remains a harrowing one I but the matter-of-fact tone adopted by the narrator comes to seem at times like a fictional device, and the paradoxical result of all the stark ‘realism’ is that the reader occasionally has the impression that Kielar is describing a series of events in whose reality he himself does not fully believe. By suppressing his own reactions, and perhaps even his unconscious disbelief in the events he describes, Kielar risks losing the trust of his reader. By stripping his experience at Auschhwitz of all context and thus delivering it from the perspective of ordinariness, he does not so much intensify the horror of what he experienced as make it seem unreal.
One of the mysteries which remains unanswered at the end of Anus Mundi is why Kielar survived. It remains unanswered largely because of the extent to which Kielar’s own personality and background is left shrouded in mystery. The sense of perspective which is lacking in Anus Mundi is amply provided in Return to Auschwitz whose story has already been told in a documentary made by Yorkshire Television. A Polish Jew who now lives in Birmingham, Kitty Hart was fifteen when, along with her mother, she first set eyes on Auschwitz. In her book she describes not only her experience there but manages to relate this experience to the rest of her life: her childhood, her ecstatic arrival in England with her mother in 1946, her subsequent disillusion and the sense of isolation which was brought to an end by her marriage.
Kitty and her mother survived partly because they had each other and partly because, while on the run across hostile countryside, they had already served an apprenticeship in survival:
It was now that I began to understand how much like an animal a human being is. You have to be, in time of stress. Basic animal requirements are food, sleep and the ability to excrete. Everything else is a bonus. Permitted those three, you can survive: food … sleep … shit.
Because of their previous experiences they did not, like many of the new arrivals in Auschwitz who escaped initial ‘selection’ for the gas chambers, die of shock. Beyond this Kitty owed her survival to a raging will to live and, perhaps above all, to the fact that she was a natural rebel. As a child she had systematically defied authority and driven a succession of nannies to despair. In Auschwitz, where all forms of authority were calculated to take away from inmates their will to live, where compliance with the system meant almost certain death, her rebelliousness became a saving virtue.
The story of her survival is a terrible one which cannot, and perhaps should not, be summarised. It is told honestly, without sentimentality and above all without false objectivity. It is told passionately as if in considered rage against those who, belonging to the unsuffering majority, refuse to face the unclean horror of war, and the bitter reality of the anti-semitism which provided the psychological main-spring of the whole National Socialist movement.
If Hart’s book succeeds where Kielar’s fails it is perhaps because, however strange it may seem, she includes herself in that civilised, unbelieving majority. For although her conscious anger is directed against the deliberate distortions of revisionist history, its real object is her own impulse towards unconscious denial – the urge which seems to be felt by all those who have survived such terrible experiences to preserve silence about them or compartmentalise them and thus seal them away from the rest of life. In seeking to convince herself of the reality of what she experienced, Kitty Hart is also able to convince her reader.
She ends her book by posing the inevitable question: Why did it happen? Her own suggestion is that the question cannot be answered:
Whichever way you look at it, the whole thing was crazy. It was as though the Nazis were possessed by a mental disease so progressively malignant that it excluded all logic and was beyond any cure. It has been said that to understand all is to forgive all. Perhaps one reason why the Nazis can never be forgiven is that their obsessive evil can never be understood.
Such a despairing gesture of incomprehension may be understandable but Hart’s metaphors of disease and malignancy lead all too readily to precisely that demonisation of Hitler which I have described and to a vision of National Socialism as an alien force, an isolated aberration which is unrelated to the orthodoxies of our culture. The danger here is of using the Second World War to create a fiction, a fiction through which we may escape the conclusion which history would otherwise force upon us: that anti-semitism, far from being a rare, deviant and inexplicable occurrence in Western history, has in fact been a central element in our cultural identity since almost the very beginnings of the Christian era.
In one respect the anti-semitic zeal of Hitler, Eichmann and others was certainly unprecedented – this was the manner in which fantasies were translated directly, and with supreme industrial efficiency, into action. But the fantasies themselves were not unprecedented. The fantasy of extermination can be traced back to the New Testament and to Christian apocalyptic, and beyond that, yet more terribly, to Jewish apocalyptic.
The historical origins of anti-semitism and its intimate association with Christianity are, of course, far from being undocumented. Two of the classic studies of the roots of modern anti-semitism, however, Norman Cohn’s Warrant for Genocide and Joshua Trachtenberg’s The Devil and the Jews, have both been out of print for some time. The sooner this situation is remedied, the better. For while it would be quite wrong to allow these scholarly studies to distract us from such immediate and searing testimonies as Kitty Hart’s, it is ultimately only by opening up the long perspective of history that the full significance of such testimonies can be understood.
Quarto, December 1981
© Richard Webster, 2002